Punters prepare to turn into WAP-man

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The Independent Online

WAP. It sounds like one of the noises Batman's knuckles used to make when they connected with The Penguin. If you have not already heard of the latest thing in mobile-phone technology, however, prepare to do so, because Ladbrokes is prepared to bet millions of pounds that it will change the way the British bet. And Ladbrokes, unlike most of their customers, generally back winners.

WAP. It sounds like one of the noises Batman's knuckles used to make when they connected with The Penguin. If you have not already heard of the latest thing in mobile-phone technology, however, prepare to do so, because Ladbrokes is prepared to bet millions of pounds that it will change the way the British bet. And Ladbrokes, unlike most of their customers, generally back winners.

What WAP stands for - Wireless Application Protocol - is much less important than what it does. WAP-enabled mobiles, the first of which are already on sale, can access and display internet pages on their screens. Or, to be precise, pared-down pages based on text rather than complex graphics, which should make it possible to use your phone to track breaking news, weather forecasts and football scores - not to mention the latest show on the 3.20 from Kempton Park.

Nor is it a one-way process. Like all the best new technologies these days, WAP is interactive. You should - in theory, anyway - be able to place bets by pressing a few buttons, and WAP-based betting, in association with the phone-maker Ericsson, was among plans unveiled by Ladbrokes this week. Others, part of an investment plan which will be backed up by £5m-worth of marketing, included a tax-free internet betting site based in Gibraltar, to be launched next week, and a deal with leading digital television providers to offer interactive TV betting within the next few months.

Yesterday, meanwhile, Ascot announced that the first three races on its card this Saturday will be broadcast on the internet, thanks to a deal between the course's website, the BBC - which will also show the same races - and the Sporting Life website, www.sportinglife.com.

Since the pictures on even the fastest computer will be way below what would normally be thought of as broadcast quality, even the most e-friendly punters will probably prefer to watch events unfold on the Beeb. Many backers around the world do not have that option, though, and for them, the chance to watch live European racing on the internet will be a notable first.

It is these same punters, in fact, that Ladbrokes and Britain's other leading bookies have most in mind as they make the huge leap from bets scrawled on scraps of paper to e-wagers launched by the click of a mouse. Online betting will be a billion-pound industry is the foreseeable future, and everyone wants a slice of the action.

Domestically, they are seeking to change not only the way people bet, but the very people who do it. In terms of boosting their share price - which in the case of Hilton/Ladbrokes, has dropped by almost 50 per cent in 12 months - the traditional betting shop is a lost cause. No matter how bright and welcoming the modern shop may be, the market it caters for is as old and stubborn as the nicotine stains they can never quite manage to shift from the ceiling.

The new target market is the 80 per cent of people who never place a bet beyond the Lottery and perhaps the Grand National. For them, a private transaction conducted via a mobile or a television remote control could be ideal. There is no risk that Aunt Ada will spot them going into the betting shop, nor do they need to encounter the smoke, swearing and airborne diseases that lurk within.

What this new, smarter class of backer is likely to be betting on, however, is sport, especially football, rather than racing. This is not good news for a sport which, currently at least, depends on a fraction of horse-racing betting turnover for most of its funding.

Get decent pictures as well as betting data on to mobiles and the net, though, and it might be another story, particularly among foreign-based backers wanting to bet on racing which is perceived to be as straight as it gets.

For both mediums, this should be the next big leap forward, and for mobiles in particular, it is closer than you might imagine. The one certainty about every ugly technological acronym is that there will be a worse one close behind, and no sooner has WAP arrived than people are talking about UMTS. It stands - since you had to ask - for Universal Mobile Telecommunications System - and could bring watchable pictures to mobiles within three years.

People are already happy to walk around with hands-free mobiles, apparently talking to themselves like village idiots, so presumably yelling "gowarnmysahn" at your phone will in time become just as acceptable. Bookmakers believe they have seen the future, and it involves their customers being one big WAPpy family.

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